3 min

Winnipeg’s urban utopia: can it last?

Queers, sex workers and other marginalized communities may be forced out of South Point Douglas

Each day I trek across town to my studio, which is located in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Winnipeg: South Point Douglas. This funny little node is framed on three sides by the Red River, and it is home to 170 residents in two enclaves that include houses, apartments and residential hotels.

I’m most familiar with the smaller cluster of the neighbourhood because that is where I work. The west hamlet is made up of eight houses, a trucking company, a now-closed rad coring business, and a warehouse owned by the Richlu company, makers of Work King and Tough Duck clothing (note to bull dykes: it’s as cool as Carhartt but Canadian-made and cheaper, too!). Miraculously, Richlu believes that art is important, so they rent one floor of their building to a motley assortment of creators such as myself, and we paint and sculpt and plot amidst boxes of workwear.

It’s a mere 15-minute walk from downtown. In short, SPD is blessed with location, location, location. Yet the Disraeli Highway arches overhead, creating noise and pollution, bisecting the neighbourhood. SPD is often described with seemingly contradictory words like “blighted” and “quaint”. Civic neglect has long reined supreme, but change is afoot. South Point Douglas has become an arena in which the urban poor increasingly have to fend off the municipal government’s participation in developer greed.

As Richard Florida describes in The Rise of The Creative Class, the reclamation of neglected neighbourhoods often begins with a first wave of pioneers who move in, make improvements, and create safety and community. Who are these brave urbanistas? According to Florida, largely queers and artists. Certainly that is true in South Point Douglas. But there are also Aboriginal families and single white guys and seniors. It is a diverse neighbourhood where gay folks and other marginalized people have worked together and made homes. They are largely low income and know each other by name.  Everyone is a bit “different”; everyone fits in.

So convivial is the ‘hood that street people have formed a tent city along the river. They wave to residents and residents wave back.  Keep in mind this is Winnipeg, the coldest city in the world — literally — and it’s December. The occupants of these tarps and tents are perhaps five generations removed from Aboriginal traders who would come to town and camp along the river 100 years ago. However, it is neither tradition nor choice that has people living under canvas in Winterpeg, but appalling economic and social conditions. That said, they have become part of the community of South Point Douglas. I can think of no other neighbourhood that would accept this phenomenon with such grace.

Similarly, South Point Douglas is also home to tranny track. Many of the tall, working girls are known by name by the local homeowners. The sex trade workers are considered neighbours, part of the ecosystem. Needless to say, this kind of utopic community, that has room for everyone including the gender-fluid, the sexually transgressive, and most of all the poor can’t last.

Last summer politicians wet themselves with glee when businessman David Asper suggested that the city expropriate the residents and give Asper the land so he could build us a new football stadium. Fortunately, an unlikely and spontaneous coalition of sports fans, urban planners, the people who stood to lose their homes, and basically anyone who had a brain stopped the plan cold. But our mayor has since been quoted as describing the neighbourhood as “a jewel.” If I had a dollar for every time a politician talked about the area’s “limitless potential”…. Our city and business leaders are proceeding as if there is nothing there, that South Point Douglas is a blank slate upon which they can project their megaproject dreams.

South Point Douglas is what it is: a neighbourhood. And like much of Winnipeg there is a legacy of colonization that plays itself out in poverty and addiction. Not that colonization was the only blow to our town. The manufacturing sector was gutted by free trade and grain prices were devalued by massive American subsidies. Since colonization, Winnipeg has always been driven by the twin fortunes of the agricultural economy and manufacturing, and as those stars faded, so did ours.

So how have city fathers fought back? Developer-driven planning, magic bullet projects and unending sprawl have taken us from bad to worse.

Organic, civic evolution is responsible for all the great medieval cities of Europe. They were created by citizens to serve their immediate human needs. There was no plan, no zoning. Kind of like in South Point Douglas. In SPD, a community of queers and artists and families, homeowners and homeless, small business owners and hookers have worked it out between them. It is a functioning neighbourhood. Not a planned neighbourhood. In light of how wrong development can be, neglect can be a blessing.

Last week the city planning department met with “stakeholders” (residents, business owners and artists) to discuss a revised Plan Winnipeg. Eighty people showed up to talk about how they wanted a community-wide geo-thermal heating plan, more low income housing, and, since more people in the neighbourhood walk than drive, fewer roads, more footpaths. How about an orchard, a granola dyke suggested? Sounds like a city of the future. If only the city will listen. It remains to be seen how this neighbourhood will “develop”, and whether those urban pioneers, the queers and artists, will need to move on, paving the way for gentrification wherever they go, or if they can remain in a magical community they have built together, forming rich and unexpected alliances.